The Media Black Hole or White Hole? A Fight over Agenda Setting and Implications for the Ethiopian National Dialogue

In PublicationsDecember 31, 202228 Minutes

The State of Customary Conflict Resolutions at Local Level: the case of Ethiopia’s Somali Region

Yirga Abebe

Yirga Abebe is currently a Ph.D. student at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies of AddisAbaba University. He holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Political Science and International Relations from Dire Dawa University in 2010 G.C and Master of Arts Degree in Peace andSecurity Studies from Institute for Peace and Security Studies of Addis Ababa University in 2014 G.C. Yirga has more than 10 years of professional experience in education and research at universities in Ethiopia. He was a Lecturer at Wollo University, Department of Peace and Development Studies, from September 2018-January 2021 and Jigjiga University, Department of Political Science and International Relations, from September 2010-August 2018. In addition to teaching, Yirga has been engaged in conducting research on various themes at local, national and regional levels. These themes conflict management, conflict-induced displacement, women & election, parliament and conflict management, peacebuilding, conflict trends, and geopolitical dynamics. Besides, Yirga has presented his research works in various national conferences in Ethiopia and also deliver trainings in his professional domain.


Conflict is an inherent nature to man, despite common misconceptions- not all conflicts are destructive and violent, but a reality of all human societies. Conflict is a process that is characterized by “stages of initiation, escalation, controlled maintenance, de-escalation and some kind of termination including settlement and resolution” (Sandole, 2008:42-43). Accordingly, as Peter Wallensteen (2002:13) argued, conflicts are solvable and there are many and varied experiences of such solutions.

Conflict resolution has been the day-to-day practice throughout the history of society although its inclusion into academic discipline is a 20th-century phenomenon. Societies have established different conflict resolution mechanisms to “address the causes of conflict and to build new and lasting relationships between hostile parties; moves conflicting parties from the destructive patterns of zero-sum conflict to positive-sum constructive outcomes” (Cited in Omeje, 2008:70).

Every society has its own customary conflict resolution mechanisms which are practiced for centuries and are deeply rooted in the traditions and history of the society. These mechanisms are “time tested and effective to handle conflicts, less complex, save time, and give a chance to parties in conflict to actively participate in solving their problems and in handling their affairs in a relatively more acceptable way to them” (Assefa, 2001:27). Unlike the modern mechanisms through court systems, the customary conflict resolution mechanism focuses on reconciling feuding parties rather than punishments.

The literature and research in conflict resolution and peacebuilding were dominated by liberal paradigms since the 1990s. However, it is now in a profound crisis. As a result, an alternative approach to conflict resolution and peacebuilding that pays attention to local context and dimensions of peace, so called the ‘local turn’, emerged in the last decade. It is argued that the local-turn approach focuses on “the agency of local actors, the dynamics of every day in conflict-affected contexts, and the durability of domestic social and cultural traditions for peacebuilding, thereby it sought to temper top-down, externally driven international peacebuilding narratives and practices” (McCandless and Donais, 2020:133).

The contemporary conflict resolution practices in Africa have been done in two forms: through the modern (state) system and traditional (customary) manner. Omeje (2008:88) argued that “various African societies have had their own traditional and customary approaches and methods of conflict resolution” which are practiced frequently and even after passing through the procedures and penalties in the formal criminal court.

In Ethiopia, with the existence of more than 80 ethnic groups with various cultures, histories, languages, and other identity markers, there are different customary conflict resolution mechanisms inherent to each ethnic group. Especially in the remote and peripheral areas, these customary dispute-resolution mechanisms are more influential and applicable than the formal criminal justice system, which is considered alien to traditional societies (Cited in Endalew, 2014:126). In this regard, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) constitution recognized, under article 34 (5), customary laws and practices as they are allowed to prevail over personal and marital disputes depending on the consent of the parties (FDRE, 1995:18).

The Somali society has established and practiced customary conflict resolution systems for long periods, evidenced by various examples in the local contexts. The system includes a wide range of actors with different roles and it has its general processes, approaches, and decisions. The Somali Regional State constitution, under Article 34(5), authorizes the customary laws and practices to judge personal and marital disputes depending on the consent of the parties, whereas, article 66(1) of the constitution called for the establishment as well as recognition of religious and customary courts/councils (Ethiopian Somali Regional State, 1994:27).

In general, while there has been abundant literature and research in the field about conflict resolution, there is limited research about the role of customary mechanisms in resolving conflicts at the local level. This, and the next, edition of Horn Review attempts to examine the state of customary conflict resolutions in the Somali region of Ethiopia including its type, actor, the nature of conflicts it governed, its fundamental principles and decisions as well as its challenges. To do so, the study is conducted through qualitative approaches by using an exploratory research design and case study method. Relevant data has been collected from primary and secondary sources through interviews, focus group discussions, and document analysis techniques. This edition of the Horn review is organised into five sub-sections. The first part provides a general background about customary conflict resolution in the Somali region. The second part presents the nature of customary conflict resolutions in the study area. The third part is about the actors involved in customary conflict resolution in the Somali region. The fourth part discusses the types and general laws of the customary conflict resolution process in the Somali region whereas the fifth part identifies the type of conflicts that are governed by the customary mechanisms. Finally, the paper presents a concluding remark on the issue.

Customary Conflict Resolution Ethiopia’s Somali Region

The Somali Regional State is one of the regional states of Ethiopia located in the eastern and south-eastern parts of the country. The region is bordered by Kenya in the south, Somalia in the south and southeast, Djibouti in the north, the Afar region in the northwest, and the Oromia region in the west. The region is the second-largest regional state covering a total geographic area of 350,000 km2. The Somali Region has both arid and semi-arid agroecological climatic zones. The predominant population of the region is ethnically Somali.

The Somali society is structured based on a clan system. The clan system forms the basis for most of the core social institutions and norms of traditional Somali society, including personal identity, rights of access to local resources, customary law (xeer), blood payment groups (diya), and support systems (Cited in CHF International, 2006:12). There are different clans, sub-clans, and sub-sub-clans in the region which determines the political, socio-cultural, economic and legal affairs of the Somali population.

The Somali society has established and used customary conflict resolution mechanisms for centuries to address different conflicts within the society in line with the traditions of the society and is being transferred from generation to generation. It has been stated that “the Somali communities had structures for conflict resolution through councils of elders, traditional courts and peer or age-group supervision, where each individual or group had to meet certain social expectations……. in accordance with Somali custom, elders are the key actors in ending hostilities and negotiating agreements between disputing parties” (Cited in Seid, 2013:152).

Actors in Customary Conflict Resolution

In due course of resolving conflicts through customary methods, different actors undertake various roles and contribute to achieving the ultimate goal of the resolution process. These actors are community elders (oddey belat), religious leaders, clan leaders (sultan/ugas), sub-clan leaders (aqil) as well as those who are knowledgeable and experienced. Moreover, there are institutions that are involved directly or indirectly in customary methods of conflict resolution. These are Kebele/Woreda administration office, Kebele/Woreda Police office, woreda court and prosecution office, social courts, and shari’a courts.

The above-mentioned institutional and personal actors have different roles in the resolution of conflicts by the customary method. The clan leaders, being the most powerful person in Somali society, undertake a meeting with clan members and community elders to discuss the conflict, represents the interests of the clan member in negotiation with other clans, and implements the decisions of elders or other neutral persons on the conflict issue. In addition, the clan leaders collect compensation from the members of the clan except for women and unmarried persons. The religious leaders (Sheikhs) provide religious education to the community and engage in the implementation of shari’a laws on conflicting issues. Particularly, when two persons are conflicting and one of them suffers physical injury, then the sheiks will decide on the issue by referring to religious books (kitab). The community elders, who are mostly neutral to the conflicting parties, directly participate in the customary processes of resolving conflict. They are reputable, experienced, and knowledgeable about the customs and the Xeer system of Somali society. They look at the cases in detail and brought a decision on the conflicting issue and its compensation based upon the Xeer system. The role of government institutions especially the court and police officers is limited to only facilitating the resolution processes by clan leaders, community elders, and religious leaders. However, unlike the government institutions, the social and shari’a court, which includes selected community elders and religious leaders, provides their judgment on the conflicting issue, and its compensation, of the Somali people.

4. Types and Laws of Customary Conflict Resolution

Depending on the type and extent of the conflicts, there are different forms of customary conflict resolution mechanisms in Somali society. According to a respondent, there are three main forms of customary conflict resolution mechanisms practiced by Somali society. These are:

  1. Conflict resolution by shari’a/Islamic courts as the Somali society are Muslims
  2. Conflict resolution by social courts where elders play a predominant role
  3. Conflict resolution mechanism by reconciliation process among conflicting parties which are guided either by persons that are neutral to the conflict or individuals selected equally from both conflicting parties.

On the other hand, according to one of the key informants, there are three types of customary methods for the resolution of conflicts which can easily be identified mainly through the participants in the resolution process. They are:

    • Those in which religious leaders and elites are active participants in the resolution of conflict (ergo)
    • Those mechanisms that are undertaken through a council of elders that are selected from neutral groups depending on the nature of the conflict (Guurti)
    • Those mechanisms in which certain committees from the conflicting parties handle the overall process of resolution (Gurso).

The customary methods that are applied in resolving conflicts are governed by customary laws of the Somali people called Xeer. It is an elaborate and meticulous provision and provides guidelines for the amount of compensation or fine to be paid in conflict (Seid, 2013:154). According to my respondent, the Xeer is a customary law that is based on the traditions of the society and previous decisions of the elders or clan leaders. Although it varies from clan to clan, the Xeer system calls for continuity of decisions irrespective of the change in time. The decision about a specific issue that was made 50 years ago is similar to decisions for similar cases right now. The Xeer system that is applied in the customary conflict resolution process is led by community elders who are reputable, experienced, and knowledgeable about the local customs and decisions of similar cases that happened previously. The following excerpt explains the different aspects of Xeer which are applied in customary conflict resolution mechanisms in the Somali society;

“The elaborate customary law of the Somalis, known as xeer, is categorized as Xeer Donimo and Xeer Dulnimo. Xeer Donimo regulates the rights and responsibilities of particularized subsets, such as clans of the Somali people, governs relationships within the clan, and regulates quasi-contractual relationships between neighboring clans on such matters as allocation of shared natural resources. ……. Xeer Dulnimo, on the other hand, consists of the rules that apply to the whole Somali people. Thus, the rules applicable to homicide (dil), moral injury (dalliil) and bodily injury (qoon) are to be found in Xeer Dulnimo. And the corresponding compensations or blood money payments, respectively, are mag (or the Arabic loan word “diya”), qoomaal and haal. The compensation scheme, which is the sentencing for the crime, is not compensation paid to the victim per se but to the whole of the group on the side of the victim, which includes a kinship network far greater than the nuclear family”. (Murado & Gebreyesus, 2009:153)

In general, Somali society has an age-old tradition of practicing customary methods for the resolution of conflicts. Even with the expansion of modern court systems for the administration of justice and addressing conflicts through the establishment of social courts in different woredas of the region, especially after 2004 E.C, the customary methods have a pivotal role to resolve conflicts in Somali society. The social courts are mainly based on the traditions of the society, and it integrates both customary practices and shari’a laws with statutory laws. The social courts are not similar to the formal court systems and it includes community elders and religious leaders who play a prominent role in the customary resolution of conflicts in Somali society.

Types of Conflicts Governed by Customary Mechanisms

There are various forms of conflict in every society. Depending on its nature, while some of these conflicts are resolved through modern court systems, others are under the mandates of customary methods of society. With regard to the types of conflicts under the rules of customary methods of resolution, Article 34 (5) of the 1995 FDRE constitution identified personal and family conflicts to be governed by customary methods as understood from the following excerpt;

“The constitution shall not preclude the adjudication of disputes relating to personal and family laws in accordance with religious or customary laws, with the consent of the parties to the dispute”.

The practice in the Somali region reveals that different forms of conflicts, which are even beyond personal and family issues, are resolved through customary methods. For example, in Kebribeyah woreda, the conflicts that are addressed through customary include clan-based conflicts, killings, resource-based conflicts between pastoralists and agro-pastoralists (such as conflicts over water, grazing land, farming land), theft (mostly cattle riding), and interpersonal conflicts. Moreover, customary methods are undertaken to resolve family conflicts such as marriage disputes, inheritance/succession, and those conflicts with a minor injury.

The customary methods are also applied to marriage-related conflicts especially when the husband dies and after that the wife is married to a person who is outside of the family/clan of the late husband. This circumstance is the cause for inter-clan conflicts and, based on the Xeer system, these conflicts are resolved which includes compensation of 15-30 camels for the dead husband clans.

In Harshin woreda, the types of conflicts that are resolved through customary methods are conflicts over land, rape, marriage with women who already are married and escaping to another place, killings, livestock riding especially camel, personal conflicts, and clan conflicts. The customary methods are also applied in order to resolve conflicts that arise because of insulting and disagreement between husband and wife.

Correspondingly, the customary methods are practiced in Awbarre woredas of the Fafan zone for addressing conflicts such as group-based conflicts among teenagers, land-based conflicts (conflicts over farming land, grazing land, and residential area), water, and killings. The customary methods are also used to address conflicts related to family and succession. According to the respondent, the customary methods especially the shari’a system are applied to conflicts that emerge out of the dispute between husband and wife over household expenses, succession, divorce, family disputes, property ownership, and distribution.

The above three cases indicate that the trend of using customary methods for resolving conflicts is quite common across the Somali region. In general, the customary method resolves various forms of conflicts within Somali society including;

  • Killing
  • Resource-based conflicts (such as conflicts over land, and water)
  • Intra-and inter-clan conflicts
  • Livestock riding, especially camels
  • Raping of women
  • Inter-personal conflicts including conflicts among teenagers and families
  • Insulting
  • Marriage disputes
  • Conflicts related to succession, property distribution

In conclusion…

Customary conflict resolution mechanisms have been practiced by Somali society for a long period. Unlike modern court systems, these methods are easily accessible, effective, time-saving, and inexpensive. The customary methods of resolution processes are undertaken in various forms. Depending on the type of conflict, customary mechanisms are carried out through community elders, religious leaders, social courts, shari’a courts, and clan leaders. The customary methods of conflict resolution in Somali society are governed by Xeer. Although the federal and regional constitution limits its scope for personal and family disputes, the customary mechanism of conflict resolution is applied in conflicts beyond these limits. It is even used to resolve criminal matters within society. It has been utilised to address issues related to killings, resource-based conflicts, intra-and inter-clan conflicts, livestock riding, raping of women, interpersonal conflicts, insulting, marriage disputes, and conflicts related to succession and property distribution. Therefore, it can be concluded that the customary methods are applicable to resolve every type of conflict in Somali society. With regard to the actors, there are both individual and institutional actors that are involved in customary methods of conflict resolution. The community elders, clan leaders, religious leaders (Sheikh’s), and those who are experienced and knowledgeable of the traditions are the primary actors in the customary resolution process. Beyond these, different institutions including the Kebele/Woreda administration office, Kebele/Woreda Police office, woreda court and prosecution office, and social courts have their supportive role in customary methods of conflict resolution in the study area. However, the practice of customary conflict resolution is not without principles and challenges. Accordingly, the next edition of Horn Review will present the fundamental principles and decisions of customary conflict resolution in the Somali region, the challenges they face, and possible recommendations to address these challenges of customary conflict resolution in the Somali region and Ethiopia at large.


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The Media Black Hole or White Hole? A Fight over Agenda Setting and Implications for the Ethiopian National Dialogue

In PublicationsDecember 31, 20229 Minutes

The Media Black Hole or White Hole? A Fight over Agenda Setting and Implications for the Ethiopian National Dialogue

Samson Mekonnen, Ph.D.

Addis Ababa University. Department of Public Relations and Strategic  Communications

Dr. Samson Mekonnen, is an Assistant Professor and Postgraduate Program and Research Coordinator at Addis Ababa University’s School of Journalism and Communication. He earned a BA degree in Journalism and Communication. He received his postgraduate degree from Addis Ababa University in two areas of specialization: Master of Arts in English Literature and Master of Arts in Marketing Management. Furthermore, in November 2020, graduated with a Doctor of Philosophy in Communication Science from the University of South Africa. He has over eight research articles published in internationally renowned academic journals in the fields of media, communication, nation branding, and integrated marketing communications. Aside from academics, he works as a consultant for a variety of local and international non-governmental organizations, including Share-Net International, HANZ Consulting, and CORHA and an international postdoc fellow at BathSpa University, United Kingdom.


The study of media and communication science as seen through the prism of quantum physics provides an interesting lesson. The concepts of the black hole and white hole in quantum physics offer some critical insights into the strife over agenda setting, particularly in Ethiopia’s upcoming National Dialogue. A black hole is a spot in the cosmos with a gravitational pull so powerful that even light, cannot escape it. A white hole, on the other hand, is a peculiar cosmic object that is incredibly luminous; and contrary to a black hole, matter gushes out of it rather than vanishes. The prevailing understanding is that, particularly in the context of Ethiopian national dialogue, the media landscape closely resembles these cosmic objects. The media, either through mainstream broadcast or print pulls so strongly that even the public agenda is immersed in such a way that it cannot get out for public discussion – the media black hole. The flip side of it is that the media sets an agenda whereby the public agenda gushes out from the media itself for public deliberation in some cases.

It is clear that national dialogue processes must be able to give the public an opportunity to set agenda. Ethiopia’s National Dialogue, per its proclamation document, is outlined to be a people-centered process, unlike what many fear would instead be a bargaining of elites. Agenda setting tends to take place in a multi-step approach; setting out key themes for discussion, often codified in the mandating document; elaborating these further into a comprehensive agenda; developing a working method, including sequencing and timing. It is possible for the agenda to emerge out of highly participatory processes of consultation within stakeholder groups, and in the wider public. The national dialogue commission often gathers all agenda points derived from earlier agreements and consultations with the crucial stakeholders and puts them forward for discussion at the National Dialogue. The ultimate agenda items are decided by the participants of the process.


The agenda-setting behavior of the media poses a serious problem in the process of national dialogue. The media’s agenda-setting function shapes the processes that result in the perceived biggest issues and solutions to public problems. Any democratic system must have the ability to determine the issues that the public should discuss and take action on. According to the conventional agenda-setting theory, the media shape public opinion by drawing attention to and emphasizing particular concerns. However, in the context of national discussion, this is clearly inappropriate. The media’s capacity to formulate agendas is problematic inasmuch as it prevents even the most basic public agenda from being brought up for public deliberation.

There is a black hole in the Ethiopian media landscape due to various factors. One major problem is the issue of professionalism in reporting national dialogue. A Survey of Ethiopian universities shows that there is a curriculum gap in reporting on national dialogues/ conversations while specialty-reporting courses are evident including conflict reporting, courtroom reporting, business reporting, war journalism, and peace journalism. The lack of a context-based national dialogue media and communication guideline document further broadens the media gap in professionalism. It is important to note that the ‘ethnicized’ media houses in the country serving, a narrow base of interest groups pose a headache to the commission. The second indicator of a black hole is the editorial policy of these media houses tends to absorb the agenda of the public – a media black hole, while exponentiation of its own agenda – a media white hole.

National Dialogues have recently generated interest among and support from actors in the international community (i.e. foreign ministries, donors, the UN, international NGOs, media houses, etc.).External actors in a dialogue process are “actors without direct participation in the dialogue or a direct stake in the outcomes of the process. Having no direct stake, however, does not mean having no interests. The extent of foreign interest and their powerful media to intervene in the process of national dialogue challenges the agenda-setting privilege of the public. The black hole is not in the local media houses but is further visible in the landscape of international media entities, as observed through the CNN Effect, Manufacturing Consent, and other such methods of narrative framing.

Prior to the agenda identification process, it is crucial to create a comprehensive set of rules, a code of conduct, or protocols that involved parties and media practitioners must abide by regarding the agenda-setting process and the media’s involvement. The national dialogue commission in the preparation phase of the dialogue perhaps with more professional consultation frequently creates these. Such an approach facilitates adherence to a strategy and offers procedural direction.

Excision of the public agenda from the media agenda while setting the agenda for national dialogue demands a critical eye for diagnosis. The agenda-setting process is unique and complex; requiring considerable preparation. Designing an effective process is thus an essential and delicate step and requires technical and professional insights.

The lesson learned through the national dialogue experience is that the societal impact of even highly successful dialogue processes will be limited if few people are aware that it has taken place and if the media and other entities hijack the public agenda. Broadening media participation, and enhancing freedom of media in a manner enabling them to play their part in making the National Dialogue a success.To this end, the media black hole, or the white hole, must be critically assessed and a scientific communication strategy must be devised.


Ethiopia’s Grand Peace Project: a Conversation with Commissioner Ambaye Ogato

In PublicationsDecember 31, 202219 Minutes

Ethiopia’s Grand Peace Project: a Conversation with Commissioner Ambaye Ogato

Commissioner Ambaye Ogato

Commissioner Ambaye, thank you for sitting down with Horn Review to discuss some of the Ethiopian Reconciliation Commission’s preliminary work in one of the most ambitious endeavors in Ethiopia’s socio-political history.

Question: Commissioner Ambaye, again, thank you for taking the time with us. What has the process of establishing the commission been like?
A: Given the novelty of this project, its scope, and its grand ambition, establishing an office- that matches the mission is undoubtedly taxing. There has not been such a prior organization tasked with conducting national dialogue, with the relevant structure, experience, and lessons. Given the complexity and multi-faceted nature of our problems, and the sheer size of the country, it is important to draw from the experience of various peace organizations throughout the nation.

There are many aspects of establishing a smooth-running office with our mission being often time-bound and objective centered. Admittedly, establishing a smooth functioning institution is no small, or easy, task; by that I mean the physical presence of the institution. This also requires employing a substantial number of employees: from subject matter experts to administrative and logistics personnel. As I previously mentioned, this office does not have a preceding organization; so, in terms of the required human resources, we are starting from scratch- in the true sense of the word. I consider obtaining the relevant manpower as one of the big tests facing the commission, and I can say that we are on track with our timeline. There is quite a need for high-caliber and dynamic minds, you don’t get those easily.

So we have to reach out to some partners and also offer incentives to sort of get the professionals. So that’s also part of establishing an office. For example, there is often a need for competent and experienced public relations firms, but those services and professionals may not be attainable on the existing public salary scale. This service alone requires its own modality. We do our best to offer an incentive package that requires negotiations with various professionals. Luckily we have come to an understanding with partners, like the UNDP, in mobilizing for and securing the funds to onboard top experts and professionals.

Question: why is the establishment of the office a top priority for the commission? Please elaborate on its importance for our readers.
A: The lion’s share of our engagement so far has been institutionalizing the commission in accordance with the proclamation mandating it. This is primarily to lay the groundwork for a national-level process for which the people can take full ownership. Developing the various protocols, working manuals, and other such materials, is also critical to the smooth functioning, efficiency, and accountability of the commission.

Question: So how do you find the posture of the office now?
A: I would say that it is ever-maturing. I wouldn’t say everything is finished, but we are yet to reach the plateau. I say we are maturing for the previous reasons I have mentioned. There are lessons we are learning as we progress, from our own learning curve.

Question: What has been the engagement of the commission with civil society organizations, NGOs, and local institutions? How have you attempted to involve them in reaching the public about token points?
A: Given the scope of this task, we are engaging government institutions, political parties, and civil society organizations which are some of the main stakeholders of this process. Though we plan to work more closely with them in the latter stages, we were able to ‘lightly’ engage them in our work by familiarizing them with our work and establishing working relationships with them, so far and their willingness to cooperate has been encouraging. Our priority, as a new institution, has been establishing the various offices and functions of the commission.

Before the establishment of the Commission itself, I was part of the national Our engagement with civil society organizations (CSOs) has been part of our broader engagement efforts with different stakeholders. As you may know, there are over 3,700 registered CSOs in Ethiopia and it is impossible to individually engage them all; a more targeted approach proves necessary. In our general approach, we classify civil society organizations into two groups: international CSOs and locally owned CSOs. We have subsequently identified those civil society organizations who have, for the past couple of years, been working on issues relating to peace, dialogue, and reconciliation.

In addition to engaging them as valuable partners in the process, we thought it important to learn from their expertise and experience throughout their peace-related efforts in the country. For example, we were able to engage the MIND-Ethiopia (Multi-stakeholder Initiative for National Dialogue) team. They were one of the principal actors conducting various dialogue efforts for the last 18 months.

Question: Do you find the aforementioned CSOs to be receptive and welcoming of the commission’s work?
A Yes! They are not only willing and receptive, but they are also very enthusiastic about the commission’s role.

However, given the multitude of adjacent tasks for the commission, we may not be going at the pace they anticipate; understandably so for the reasons I previously stated. It is my understanding that they show a genuine interest in meaningfully engaging with us. To continue with the earlier example of Destiny Ethiopia, the precursor to MIND-Ethiopia, they were key in initiating the idea of national-level dialogue to work toward lasting peace. In addition, Justice for All, EID – Ethiopian inclusive dialogue, – Initiative for Change, Ministry of Peace, joint political parties, and other such stakeholders, are involved.

So “mind” was established and the ones I listed above was a few of the actors in this process for 18 months. We felt like it was important to talk to them and get some lessons from the mind. We were able to talk to them and we have been in constant touch with them. We have been getting quite insightful advice from them – that’s one level of engagement we have with them. We also have an engagement with the Ethiopian Civil Societies Council, It is a newly established council that oversees the various existing civil societies. I know it’s quite new but they seem to have a good handle on coordinating civil societies; as they are newly operating, they cannot yet provide substantive support, as we speak. The coordination aspect is very important. We have had contact and quite an encouraging engagement with them. I hope our engagements will prompt more partnerships and materialize into a working agreement, of some sort. CRDA, as one of the major actors in civil societies in Ethiopia, is also present.

Unlike typical elite bargaining, this is meant to be the people’s dialogue; in this regard, how is the commission involving ordinary Ethiopians? University students, and religious establishments, to name a few. Relatedly, are there platforms where Ethiopians can provide questions, feedback, or forward their grievances?

A: Indeed. The Proclamation to establish the Ethiopian National Dialogue Commission (Proclamation No. 1265/2021) is clear from the outset. That this endeavor is unlike the typical elite bargaining project in that it aims to involve every gamut of society. However, this is not to say that the project entirely excludes the country’s elites. The process can be considered a hybrid approach, particularly looking at other similar international dialogue experiences. The process engages the public at large, found at every level, and, concurrently, the elites. So these processes go in parallel. So for us, we believe that this process will take both the elites as well as the ordinary citizens, whatever it means would use the same credibility and weight to these actors. So as I said, we are at a crucial preparatory phase where different modalities need to be devised. This will certainly enable us to bring on board the various voices that Ethiopians have. So one website, we are developing a website.

So one thing we’re doing is developing a website. When it comes to the agenda collection phase, we have in mind and in our plan different modalities of agenda collection going to different villages or localities and holding different meetings generating agenda to discuss – that’s one modality. There are emails as well, we’re open to that because within that there are quite a substantial diaspora communities who are not able to directly engage in the dialogue process. So we think one possibility could be virtual engagements of these diaspora communities in the process. Also in a post on collecting agenda, we use every means possible. We have identified this as a major means and finally, if you read a proclamation that gives a mandate to the council, the commission has to identify fundamental national issues. So we have this very simple order, first, we collect all the agendas. Then, finally, the 11 commissions of the council will decide on the national issues that should come to the national plenary. So, in order to do this we are open to and the proclamation also gives place to research done by different actors. So we look into research and see if they would fit in the agenda items.

We aim to use different modalities of engaging the public. As I said this is something still in progress. Institutional websites and different platforms have been identified. We are progressing on that front and diversifying platforms that can capture the different voices of the citizenry.

Question: How realistic is this form of outreach in a country where much of the public lacks access to the internet?

A: You are right. It is hard to reach in a country where internet access is less than 5%. But it gives it some sort of legitimacy to have everything out in the open.

The platforms we are primarily preparing for are organized at the constituency and wereda levels: women’s groups, youth groups, the framers, marginalized groups, the different associations, interest groups, professional associations, and also unorganized groups. So this method tries to capture all gamuts of society, and ensure no voice goes unheard. We often hear One of the questions we get repeatedly is that “wouldn’t it be unmanageable?” There is good running. It looks a little bit ambitious but I hope through this process different discordant voices would be captured and I guess that would somehow give collective healing to the nation.

The more you explain the more the task there is. The whole population is rooting for the success of this initiative.

So, what would you recommend the media do?
A: Quite a number of things. The media should, at the very least, hold us accountable. We, honestly, have that audacity at the commission. But, with that, a legitimate concern because if they understand the sheer importance of their task. I would say that this process is also their own, and with that- they are not mere spectators- but integral parties to the success of the process. They are there to protect the integrity of the process.

Do you believe that national-level media training is relevant to the success of the Commission’s work?
A: Absolutely. In the field of Journalism, there is a specific specialization called “peace journalism”. There are targeted trainings for reporting on sensitive issues, and in contexts where there is a risk of conflict or pockets of violence. The way media entities angle themselves on controversial issues needs thorough deliberation. One must ask, “are we over-emphasizing a few negative items, and minimizing the good?”- as has been the case in many instances. The few moments where the Israeli, Palestinian, and Egyptian heads of state shook hands, having achieved a promising agreement, have had a positive effect on the overall narrative of animosity. Although the process has been arduous and long, capitalizing on the goodwill of the leadership has done more to encourage hope among ordinary citizens of these nations. The focus of the media on positive achievements, as well as a sober analysis of the issues, has a lasting effect- hence why it is so important.

Knowing and understanding what exactly is at stake, a sensitive national-level endeavor is crucial for all involved, especially media entities. One might ask “what sort of media training is important at this time?”

In my professional and academic experience, I am yet to see a country attempt a national dialogue at this level; a population size of one hundred and twenty million, with its complexities and varying narratives, is novel. The interest of foreign entities in this process, be it positively or otherwise, makes this dialogue highly consequential to the broader Horn region.

This is to say: the national dialogue is as much an experiment for the commission, as it is for media entities and other such stakeholders. It requires a careful and methodical approach. Yemen and Kenya have attempted a similar endeavor; though they set out to conduct a comprehensive national-level conversation, they only had a handful of items on the agenda for discussion. Understandably, dialogue experiments have their own peculiarities inherent to the conditions and challenges of the countries, but these experiences are unlike that of Ethiopia. The primary challenge for our country is the multiplicity, and complexity of our issues; added to the intensity of identity-based questions and the risk of triggering-question.

For anyone giving this nationwide endeavor a serious thought, it can be intimidating but I am hopeful that this process would birth a new Ethiopia, that is the hope that keeps me positive and energized, as it should.
(Note: this interview took place in October of 2022. A follow-up on the up-to-date activities of the mission will be shared in subsequent issues)


The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: An Appraisal of Colonial Agreements, Issues of Existence and Forum for Negotiation

In PublicationsDecember 31, 202276 Minutes

​​The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: An Appraisal of Colonial Agreements, Issues of Existence and Forum for Negotiation

Mihreteab T. Taye, Amare K. Aweke, Yidnekchew M. Mekonnen

Mehreteab T. Taye: Post-Doctoral Global Fellow at New York University (NYU), Institute for International Law and Justice, NYU, USA

Amare K. Aweke: Lead Researcher and Director, Institute of Foreign Affairs (IFA), Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Yidnekchew M. Mekonnen: Researcher for African Affairs, Institute of Foreign Affairs (IFA), Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

(1)Dr. Mihreteab is a research scholar at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, New York University School. Dr. Mihreteab focuses on international law, human rights, and the workings of international courts and dispute resolution mechanisms. He has made contributions to the field through the publication of several articles regarding African international courts and dispute-resolution mechanisms in peer-reviewed journals. Before joining the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, Dr. Mihreteab was a Global Postdoctoral Fellow affiliated with the Institute of International Law and Justice at the School of Law, New York University. He holds a Ph.D. in Law from Copenhagen University, an LLM in International Law (Cum Laude) from Erasmus University, and an LLB from Addis Ababa University.

​​(2) Amare K. Aweke (Ph.D.) is the Director General and Lead Researcher of the Middle East Research Affairs Directorate at the Institute of Foreign Affairs (IFA), Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Dr. Amare has completed his PhD.D. (2020) and MA (2012) in Peace and Security Studies from Addis Ababa University (AAU), Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS), and BA (2007) from Mekelle University (MU), Ethiopia. He has served as an Assistant Professor of Peace and Security Studies and Director for the Research Affairs Directorate at Dire Dawa University. Dr. Amare has published several articles focusing on political violence and contemporary national,
regional, and international security. His research interests include political violence, peace & conflict, international security, denuclearization, and diplomacy.
He can be contacted via:

(3)Yidnekachew Mitiku holds a PH.D. in Peace & security Studies from AAU. He received a bachelor’s degree in Law (LL.B) from Haramaya University and a master’s degree in Constitutional and Public Law (LL.M) from Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. He currently works as a Researcher at the Institute of Foreign Affairs. He also teaches courses and advises students as a part timer at Addis Ababa University, School of Law, and Ethiopian Civil Service University, School of Law and Federalism.

Egypt has jealously guarded its claim to the Nile waters throughout its history, threatening military action against Sudan and Ethiopia whenever they have announced water projects on the river (Pemunta et al., 2021). As internal strife and poverty have racked both Ethiopia and Sudan for decades, neither has taken serious action to dam the river for irrigation or hydroelectric power. These have made Egypt’s control and overwhelming dominance over the waters of the Nile (Wheeler et al. 2016). More recently, Egypt used a reference to three colonial agreements signed in 1902 (signed between Ethiopia and the British – on behalf of Sudan), which were said to have discrepancies between the “original Amharic” version and its equivalent English interpretations, the 1929 agreement (Egypt and British), and finally, the 1959 agreement (Egypt and Sudan) to secure its dominance over the waters of the Nile (Salman 2013). These agreements outlawed any activity that diminishes the quality of Nile water flowing into Egypt.

Over the centuries, the basin has served as a source of conflict and cooperation among the riparian states, especially between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt (G. Degefu 2003). Although there is no apparent physical boundary between Ethiopia and Egypt, there have been traceable state relations in history (Arsano 2007; Salman 2013). There is mythology stating their relationship based on a mutual understanding – Egypt for the waters of the Nile and Ethiopia for maintaining the shipping of Bishops from Egypt (McCann 1981). Regardless of the mythology, both maintained a closer tie and amicable relations for centuries until the late 19th c(1874-
76) – when Egypt decided to launch a war against states in its immediate south. The military expedition was led by Khadive Ismael with an ambition to create “Greater Egypt”
in North-East Africa by swallowing Sudan and Ethiopia (Turton 1970). It was directed ‘to control the source of the Nile’ (Turton, 1970). However, Ethiopia defeated the advancing Egyptian army at Gundet (1875) and Gura (1876) and repelled Egyptian ambition to control the mouth of the Nile (Zewde 1991).

This paper aims to shed light on the ongoing dispute between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt over the construction and filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) through a doctrinal analysis of the legal instruments and interpretative methodology. Doing so refutes the application of colonial agreements signed in 1902, 1929, and 1959. Finally, it contempt the intervention of regional and international institutions external to Africa such as the Arab League, and United Nations Peace and Security Council (UNPSC), or else promote the need to continue with an African Union (AU) – led trilateral negotiation to end the dispute amicably since the Nile is an African resource dispute emerging from the use of the water has to be solved through regional mechanisms. African Union (AU) has long-established regional means of resolving disputes called “African solution for African problems (AfSol),” in which Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt are outright members. Hence, this paper focuses on assessing Ethiopia’s reiterating reasons for sticking to AfSol and continuing with the AU-led trilateral negotiation as far as the GERD is concerned. Finally, it also consults with legal procedures of fare-welling for colonial agreements.

An Ethiopian Initiative to Build a dam on the Nile

Although hampered by considerable financial and logistical constraints, several attempts were made by Ethiopia to build a dam on the Nile River since the 1920s (McCann, 1981). First, Britain and later Egypt were against those developments. Later, it was also interrupted following the Italian invasion of Ethiopia (1935-41). Successive military threats appeared, especially from Egypt, whenever Ethiopian attempts to use the Nile waters seemed a reality. Hence, despite the consequent feasibility study supported by the USA in the 1960s and by the Soviets later in the 70s, the Ethiopian plan to use its water resource never materialized (Swain 2011). Egypt was also instrumental in blocking the African Development Bank loan the Derg requested for the Nile water project in 1990 (Swain 2011). Furthermore, following the downfall of the Derg, Ethiopia also resumed its plan to implement a project along the Nile River in the late 1990s. But because of the outbreak of the Ethio-Eritrean war (1998-2000) and the subsequent economic collapse, it was forced to withdraw from any grand water projects. Egypt responded with more threats, but nothing happened because Ethiopia resumed war with Eritrea. The social and security situations following the war became further bulwarks and extended the inaugural construction of the dam until 2011.

Third, in 2011 Ethiopia declared its intention to build the long-planned Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), a water project fully sponsored by Ethiopians. GERD is the “Dam of the People.” Regardless of social and economic status or ethnic and cultural background in Ethiopia or the diaspora, Ethiopians have paid certain percentages of their salaries or incomes for the GERD. Many people have even withdrawn from taking the dividend and full amounts of the bonds they have bought for GERD construction purposes. While building the GERD, Ethiopia primarily maintained the ethics of limited Territorial Sovereignty(1). This principle promotes equitable share and utilization of international water among riparians. It also took maximum care not to cause significant harm to others. It maintained the principle of cooperation, information exchange, notification, consultation, and, most importantly, the peaceful settlement of disputes arising from the dam(2). Although Ethiopia opted for a peaceful settlement of the disputes, Egypt invariably maintained its dominance over the Nile waters as it used to enjoy over centuries with the assumption of the principles of Absolute Territorial Integrity(3) stating the lower riparian states have absolute control over the course and use of the water (for it is their natural right) for whatever purposes with no consultation to the upstream states.

This principle is interpreted as the upstream states having no right over the course and utilization of the water that flows and originates from their territory. Since the construction and the filling of GERD, Egypt was in defiance of Ethiopia’s developmental zeal. Sudan also has been vacillating between Egypt and Ethiopia over the years and more recently bend to the Egyptian side, emphatically speaking that the filling of the GERD affects the national security of Sudan as it does to Egypt. In addition to the actual military threats, Egypt also engaged in maneuvering and irregular activities by supporting Ethiopian opposition groups that once used to operate in Eritrea and opposition groups in Sudan to at least weaken and destabilize,and if successful, polarize Ethiopia along ethnic and religious lines. These military threats and plotting of Egypt against Ethiopia and the rest of the upper riparian states came from their short-sighted understanding that “Egypt is the gift of the Nile.” Military threats and intimidations were among the methods Egyptians used to prevent dam construction over the Nile River – ‘diplomacy by other means.’ For centuries Egyptians taught their offspring in regular schools. The Madrassas, whoever tries to take a drop of water from the Nile without consultation, are an imminent danger to Egypt (Arsano, 2007; Salman, 2013).

On the other hand, Sudan was also bought by Egypt recently. Its position concerning GERD is changing from time to time. As stated by the Sudanese Minister of Irrigation and Water, the construction of the GERD will benefit Sudan in two most important ways(4). It has been a tradition that Millions of Sudanese farmers are displaced, and their cultivations eroded every year due to the annual rainy season flooding of the Nile. Hence, the construction of the GERD regulates flooding by balancing the Nile water flow into Sudan. Second, Sudan is also close to 48% short of electricity demands (WB, 2019). Hence, Sudan will secure the electricity demands upon completing the GERD since it is planned to share electric power generated from the GERD with the rest of the riparian states. Due to GERD’s proximity (only 40 km away from the Ethiopia-Sudan border), Sudan will be the first riparian state to share electricity to meet its demands.>/p>

Why is GERD becoming an Existential Issue in Ethiopia?

Both Egypt and Sudan, for years, failed to recognize that the Nile water is existential to Ethiopia. Upon completion of the GERD, it is expected to lift millions of Ethiopians out of abject poverty, food shortage, and starvation. According to the national statistics, over 60 million Ethiopians (over 50% of the national demography) still live under subsistence livelihoods, consuming less than they should (Devereux 2000). Over 10% require food assistance every year (WFP 2020). In addition to this, the average monthly income of Ethiopian citizens amounts to 200 USD, which is 18 times less than the average income of an Egyptian citizen (USD 3700) (WB 2020). GERD is also projected to take Millions of Ethiopians out of darkness and energy shortages by providing secure power and energy needed for development.

Studies and national statistics indicate that over 60% of Ethiopians (currently close to 70 million) still lack electricity and live in complete darkness due to a shortage of power grids (Economics, 2021). It is an absolute disgrace to Ethiopia and the rest of the upper riparian states compared to Egypt’s surplus power supply (Economics 2021; WB 2019). Especially in Ethiopia, with a 90% share of the Nile waters, living in 70% darkness is unacceptable. Finally, the GERD is planned to provide secure power energy for an additional close to three hundred million people in the region by producing over 5000GW of electric energy. According to the World Bank report (2019), except for Egypt, access to electricity to the rest of the riparian states of the Nile amounts only to 37.5% of the total power demand. The plan to distribute electricity to over three million people upon the completion of the GERD includes those in the upstream and downstream (Sudan) states, the majority of whose population (close to 63%) is currently in darkness (WB, 2019). Hence, the GERD is an existential issue Ethiopians unanimously spoke about over the last decade since their development hinged on the construction and filling of the Dam.

Egypt and later Sudan officially made it clear that they would use all possible alternative courses of action to halt, obstruct, or damage the GERD’s filling (especially the second filling). There are also clear indications of preparation for war where both have been making military maneuvering (exercise of a joint military drill) dubbed “Guardians of the Nile” in North Sudan since March 2021 with the participation of naval, air, and ground forces (Michaelson 2020). In addition, Egypt and Sudan shied away from the African Union-led trilateral negotiation and sought the United Nations Peace and Security Council (UNPSC). All bore no fruit in resolving the dispute amicably until this point. Following this, the article explores the legal procedures of annulling earlier colonial agreements signed over the use and utilization of the Nile waters. Almost all of these documents were signed in the absence of Ethiopia or total negligence of its interests over the Nile waters. A handful of African Regional Mechanisms to end the dispute amicably have been presented following that.

Colonial Agreements over the Nile and Ethiopia

An acute problem in the Nile River basin is the lack of a comprehensive legal framework governing the Nile River. The few piecemeal treaties, such as the 1902, 1929, and 1959 treaties, all of which date back to colonial times, could not solve the controversies among the Nile riparian states. These fragmented treaties feature predominantly in current debates surrounding the Nile River. At the heart of the dispute over the use of the Nile River are Egypt and Sudan’s claim of historical and acquired rights to use the Nile water, which directly emanates, in their view, from the colonial treaties. In the following sections, 1902, 1929, and 1959 treaties, legal statuses are examined in light of pertinent customary and international laws.

The 1902 Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty

The 1902 Anglo- Ethiopian treaty is a boundary delimitation treaty between Ethiopia and the United Kingdom, a colonial power controlling Sudan. Although the 1902 treaty’s objective was to delimit the boundary between Ethiopia and Sudan, it included a provision relating to any construction on the Ethiopian side of the River Nile, which has become controversial to date(5). After more than a century since the 1902 treaty, Egypt and Sudan have opposed the construction of the GERD, arguing that the 1902 treaty binds Ethiopia and Ethiopia needs to secure prior consent of Egypt and Sudan as successor states to the treaty from the United Kingdom. However, Ethiopia at different times, Ethiopia locally refuted that it is bound by the treaty (Waterbury 1979).

There are insurmountable reasons that support the invalidity of the 1902 treaty. First, Ethiopia has never ratified the treaty (G. Degefu 2003; Tafesse 2011). Second, the treaty does not preclude Ethiopia from using the Nile by interpreting the Amharic and English versions. Third, the treaty is invalid as an unequal treaty (G. Degefu 2003; Waterbury 1979). Fourth, Ethiopia has terminated it due to a fundamental change of circumstance (Woldetsadik 2013). The below section shall discuss each of these reasons one by one.

The 1902 Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty: Ratified or not ratified?

To become a party to a treaty, a State must express its consent to be bound by it. Such consent can be expressed in various ways, including through the treaty’s signature by a proper representative of the State. Under modern treaty practice, however, States often express their consent to be bound by a separate act of ratification carried out after signature. For bilateral treaties, this ratification is typically manifested by the exchange of instruments of ratification. Many scholars have disputed that Ethiopia has ratified the treaty (Degefu 2003; Tafesse 2011). Thus, whether ratification of the 1902 treaty was required to establish consent at that time requires further investigation. The Vienna Convention on the law treaties governs the validity of treaties. However, Vienna Convention on the law treaties was adopted sixty-seven years after the 1902 treaty. Therefore, to consider whether ratification of the 1902 treaty was required, reference should be made to customary international law applicable in 1902.

By the mid-twentieth century, there was some debate about whether ratification was generally necessary to establish a state’s consent to be bound by a treaty. It was not until the second half of the twentieth century that state practice solidified around the stance that ratification was only deemed necessary if the parties so agreed (Hoffmeister 2018). Thus, according to customary international law at that time, Ethiopia’s ratification of the 1902 Treaty may indeed have been necessary. Looking at treaty practice in the seventeenth century, the Sovereign ratification of treaties was required after the signature. This practice of signature followed by ratification was a mere formality to verify whether the representative had acted within their powers in signing the treaty. However, this practice changed at the end of the eighteenth century. Despite signing treaties, officials at the head of the state felt at liberty to refrain from ratifying a treaty.

Hence, a treaty was binding upon a state only when the head of State approved the treaty and after the exchange of instruments of ratification. This two-step procedure gained even more prominence in the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, state practice consolidated, and ratification became necessary when the states agreed (Hoffmeister 2018). Thus, according to customary international law at that time, Ethiopia’s ratification of the 1902 Treaty may indeed have been necessary if Ethiopia had agreed (Wehling 2020). There is no evidence that Ethiopia has ratified the 1902 treaty. However, under Article 3 of the 1902 Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty, only the United Kingdom’s ratification was required for the treaty to enter into force. This was against state practice at that time. Even if Ethiopia had ratified the Treaty, there are discrepancies between the Amharic and English texts of the treaty, leading to the interpretation of the Amharic and English texts of the treaty.

Hence, a treaty was binding upon a state only when the head of State approved the treaty and after the exchange of instruments of ratification.

The Interpretation of a Multi-Lingual Treaty: Discrepancies between the Amharic and English texts

Treaties in two or more languages cause problems to the stability of international order triggering disputes emanating from different language versions of the same treaty. There is an evident discrepancy in the meaning and interpretation of the English and Amharic texts of Article 3 of the 1902 Treaty. Excerpt from the Amharic version of the 1902 Agreement read as:

Excerpt from the English version of the 1902 Agreement read as:
“His Majesty, the Emperor Menelek II King of Kings of Ethiopia, engages himself towards the Government of his Britannic Majesty not to construct, or allow to be constructed, and works across the Blue Nile, Lake Tsana or the Sobat which would arrest the flow of their waters into the Nile except in the agreement with his Britannic government and the Government of the Sudan.”

The disagreement concerns the meaning of the word “arrest” in the Amharic and English versions. According to the provision of Article 33, paragraph 1 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties that codifies customary law, when a treaty has been authenticated in two or more languages, the text is equally authoritative in each language(6).[9] Article 5 of the Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty of 1902 states that the English and Amharic texts are both authentic: “written in the English and Amharic languages, identically, both texts being official.” The Treaty contains no provisions in a divergence between the texts.

The ordinary meaning of “arrest the flow” is to completely stop or block the river flow. The Amharic version states that…”ተዳር እዳር የሚደፍን ስራ እንዳይሰሩ፡፡ ወይም ወንዝ የሚደፍን ስራ ለመስራት ለማንም ፍቃድ እንዳይሰጥ፡፡….” which means to block entirely from one side to the other side.

Thus, in the Amharic version, the obligation imposed on Ethiopia did not preclude water use. What was prohibited was any scheme that would totally arrest the water flow. There was no evidence indicating that Ethiopia had acknowledged the meaning of “arrest” as not to utilize the water. The Amharic text merely enshrines Ethiopia’s duty not to completely stop the flow of water, whereas all other water uses are at the discretion of Ethiopia.

Negotiating with Imperialism: The 1902 treaty as “Unequal Treaty”

The 1902 Anglo-Ethiopian treaty has been designated by many as part of what is known “unequal treaty” since it was concluded under the supremacy of the United Kingdom in the region and provided no benefit for Ethiopia (Wehling 2020). At first sight, the 1902 treaty indeed appeared to be ‘unequal”. It seemed to mirror other colonial agreements, particularly those that the United Kingdom had extracted from its colonies in Africa and beyond by force through military, political, or economic coercion. In unequal treaties, there is generally an imbalance of reciprocal obligations. Unequal treaties contained provisions for extraterritoriality; they denied Africans the freedom to set their terms and included most-favored-nation status for the Western signatories but not for Africans. The 1902 treaty provides the most favored terms to the United Kingdom, excluding any benefit for Ethiopia, thus as an unequal treaty, it is invalid.

State Succession in Respect of Treaties

Egypt and Sudan argue that Article 3 of the 1902 treaty is binding upon Ethiopia despite the discrepancy in the English and Amharic texts. Egypt and Sudan claim that they succeeded in the rights and obligations under the Treaty upon independence. However, Egypt’s argument based on state succession is untenable as the United Kingdom agreed solely for Sudan. The Treaty mainly governs the territorial delimitation between Ethiopia and Sudan. The English text states that its measures may not be implemented on the Nile, “except in agreement with His Britannic Majesty’s Government and the Government of Sudan.” The treaty does not have a provision that creates rights or obligations for Egypt. Indeed, the treaty does not mention Egypt in any of its conditions. Therefore, the argument based on treaty succession does not support Egypt’s position. When Sudan became independent in 1956, the colonial treaties did not succeed. The clean-slate principle applied for Sudan to any treaty succession upon independence by customary international law(7). Although the clean-slate principle does not apply to territorial treaties, Sudan could not be a successor to the rights and obligations under Article 3 of the 1902 Treaty because this provision was not about territory.

Fundamental Change of Circumstances

Treaties are subject to the general principle of pacta sunt servanda. Treaties primarily depend on the premise that certain circumstances will remain unchanged, indispensable to the treaty’s conclusion. These circumstances are the basis for the parties to enter into an agreement stipulating their standard expectations, and pacta sunt servanda protects these common expectations(8) (Stein and Carreau 1968)

However, pacta sunt servanda does not offer that all agreements remain unchallengeable whatsoever (Müllerson 2001). When circumstances leading to the conclusion of a treaty have changed, and obligations under a treaty have become excessively onerous, States can rely on the rebus sic stantibus principle, which means the party affected by the change of circumstance can terminate a treaty unilaterally (Stein and Carreau 1968). This is a rule of customary international law codified in Article 62 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT).

It has to be noted, however, legal certainty should be maintained, and thus international law has prescribed exceptions to the rebus sic stantibus principle. First, for the rule to apply, there should not only be a change in circumstance, but the change should be fundamental (Sinclair, 1984). Second, the fundamental change of circumstance cannot be invoked as a ground for terminating a territorial treaty (9). The Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty of 1902 is mainly a territorial treaty to delimit the border between Ethiopia and Sudan. However, Article 3 of the 1902 treaty is a non-territorial provision. If a treaty contains mixed provisions— both provisions establishing a boundary and other, non-boundary related provisions, as in the case of the 1902 treaty— the rebus sic stantibus principle generally remains applicable to the non-territorial provision such as Article 3 of the 1902 treaty without affecting the boundary relating provisions.

Concerning the fundamental change of circumstance, it is necessary to recognize the significant change in Ethiopia’s economic, social, political, and legal circumstances since the conclusion of the Treaty in 1902. The 1902 status quo changed significantly with the independence of the Nile Basin States. The economic and political conditions, which had a significant role in the conclusion of the 1902 treaty, no longer exist. The legal status of the Nile Basin states has changed. Population growth, climatic conditions, and the increasing development needs have forced Ethiopia, as a result of these changing circumstances, to evade the limitations imposed by these new circumstances and to unilaterally refute colonial-era agreements, including the 1902 treaty. Because of the fundamental change circumstances since 1902, Ethiopia embarked on constructing the GERD.

Given these new circumstances in Ethiopia and its need to provide food, water, and electricity for its large population, it cannot in good faith be expected that it will continue to observe far-reaching restrictions on its use and development of the water resources in its territory. The conditions for invoking the principle of rebus sic stantibus are thus met. If the conditions are met, the state party must invoke the principle and try to adapt the treaty to the changed circumstances by negotiations (Brownlie 2008). Thus, it can be argued that Ethiopia could invoke the rebus sic stantibus principle to try to adapt to the changed circumstances through negotiations using the African Union as a forum (Woldetsadik 2013). Such adaptation to the changed circumstances could be to agree that, by the rules of current international watercourse law, notification and consultations for such works that the 1902 Treaty covers shall be necessary, rather than prior consent, and that the uses must be equitable and reasonable, which includes the obligation not to cause significant harm to the co-riparian states. This would allow Ethiopia to develop and use these water resources to provide for the needs of its growing population, and at the same time, protect the interests of downstream states in a water flow that allows the continued development and uses of the Nile on their territories for their own needs.

Effect of Treaties on third party-Non-Signatory States: The 1929 and 1959 Treaties

Egypt holds that the Nile Waters Agreements of 1929 and 1959 are binding upon Ethiopia. Ethiopia is a non-signatory State to both treaties. While the 1929 agreement limits Ethiopia’s use of the Nile River, the 1959 agreement allocates the entire water flow of the Nile between Egypt and Sudan. According to the well-known customary international law principle pacta tertiis nec nocent nec prosunt, treaties cannot create third parties’ obligations unless the latter accepts such obligations. The 1929 and 1959 Agreements that limit the use of the Nile form neither rights nor obligations for Ethiopia as a third state unless the parties intended this to the treaty, Sudan and Egypt, and Ethiopia as the third state had accepted the obligation in writing. The provisions that establish an obligation on third states did not mention Ethiopia. The 1929 treaty specifically denotes the Nile and its tributaries “so far as all these are in the Sudan or countries under British administration.” Ethiopia was not one of these countries under the British administration. Neither did Ethiopia expressly accept the restrictions imposed by the treaty. Thus, the 1929 Agreement cannot bind Ethiopia. Similarly, Ethiopia refuted the 1956 treaty from the outset because it was excluded (Arsano 2007).

The GERD and the mandate of the UN Security Council

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has a mandate to secure international peace and maintain security under chapters VI and VII of the UN Charter. The mandate of the UNSC is further based on the norms of international law, including (but not limited to) the laws of war and international humanitarian law. UNSC’s mandate to act also derives from the normative and operational precedent established by the UNSC’s practice (Conforti 2005). Questions concerning whether this mandate – legal, normative, and functional – can or should be extended to take into consideration transboundary watercourses issues such as the Nile have arisen against the background of Egypt’s elevation of the GERD from a ‘threat to regional peace and security to a ‘threat to international peace and security. Based on its potential consequence to international peace and security, Egypt invoked Article 35 of the United Nations Charter and requested the Security Council to intervene in the negotiations over the GERD. This requires a more specific examination of the UNSC mandate in relation to transboundary watercourses.

Article 24 of the UN Charter establishes the Security Council’s principal mandate to maintain international peace and security on behalf of the UN members. Article 39 provides the Security Council’s mandate to determine what constitutes a threat to the peace, a breach of the peace, or an act of aggression. Chapters VI (on the peaceful settlement of disputes) and VII (on the action concerning threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression) provide the UNSC with its operational guidelines. Together these chapters give the UNSC a set of options for action in the face of events that might endanger the maintenance of international peace and security. This ranges from investigating a dispute, enjoining parties to settle their dispute peacefully, recommending the terms of a settlement, establishing compliance measures, imposing sanctions, and taking such action based on the use of force as may be necessary. In exercising its mandate, the UNSC is required to respect the fundamental international legal principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states(10). In practice, this requires the consent of sovereign governments before deploying forces on the ground under the UN mandate.

In exercising its mandate, the UNSC is required to respect the fundamental international legal principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states(10). In practice, this requires the consent of sovereign governments before deploying forces on the ground under the UN mandate.

Despite the seemingly broad power of article 39, the practice has been that threats to peace and security were to be carefully defined as military aggression, armed conflict, or violence between two or more states. Under the UN Charter and the laws of war, the legitimate grounds for the use of force and UN intervention are self-defense and collective security (11). Egypt’s reference to the GERD issue to the UNSC is political and misrepresents the very concept of international peace and security and the mandate of the UNSC. The GERD issue does not fall within the mandate of the UNSC as it neither involves military use nor violence. Ethiopia’s decision to utilize the Nile River by no means would pose a threat to international peace and security. Therefore, more focus should be given to the role of the AU and the concept of AfSol.

So, what is behind Egypt and Sudan’s constant reference of the matter to non-AU forums?

Whenever Egypt and Sudan incessantly refer the matter to non-AU forums, they consider certain objectives to achieve. When taking the matter to the Security Council, Egypt and Sudan premised on Article 35 of the United Nations Charter. They invoked preventive diplomacy as a tenable ground for the UNSC to entertain the matter. However, what is underneath their action is trying out all available options to preserve their existing colonial water rights, which almost all are allocated to them. It is a strategy to win allies in their relentless effort to pressure Ethiopia to fall to their terms. But, to their dissatisfaction, many African countries are unwilling to buy the so-called ‘historical claim’ rights by Egypt and Sudan over the Nile(12). Hence, they do their best to shift it away from AU-led negotiation. Otherwise, there have been no merits in the details of GERD that would make it fall under the ambit of article 35 of the UN charter. GERD is purely a developmental issue in which Ethiopia aspires to lift millions of its people out of poverty. GERD is an issue of fair and equitable utilization of water rights. It is about the right of citizens of the Nile-Basin countries to develop and share rivers’ waters to provide water, electricity, and food. It is not an imminent security threat to the stability and security to be taken to the UN Security Council. The UNSC shall not be discussing the GERD issue due to its non-connection with peace and security. On top of that, there was no precedence where the UN Security Council has entertained a water issue. Hence, having it in the Security Council is just a throwaway to politicize the issue.

Egypt and Sudan’s tendency to invite various parties as negotiators/mediators to the issue is also an all-out strategy of amassing support in their accusation against Ethiopia. The recent resolution by the Arab League is nothing short of this explanation (13). The resolution did nothing but accuse Ethiopia of having taken an “obstinate stance” on GERD, which is to the satisfaction of Egypt. Such moves and unfounded accusations, however, undermine the ongoing efforts by the AU and disregard Ethiopia’s sovereign right to use its resource for development and to lift millions out of poverty. It disregards Ethiopia’s right to fair use its resources without causing significant harm to the downstream countries permitted by the international law governing transboundary waters. But let’s not also forget that Egypt ascribes itself more to the Arab League than the AU. Moreover, currently, Egypt is the one that chairs the Arab League. So, no wonder the Arab League came up with such an unbalanced resolution.

Towards an amicable solution for the GERD dispute: Why AfSol the right path for Ethiopia?

Though the phrase “African solutions to African problems” gained prominence after the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) transformed into the African Union (AU) in 2001, the idea of African solutions is not a new invention. It had always been the driving force behind the Pan-African movements since the 1900s and the quest for independence from colonial powers in the African continent (Mazuri 1967; Nikrumah 1961). Indeed, the quest for African-driven solutions motivated the formation of the OAU in 1963 to harness the capacity of Africa’s weak states for a combined response to common challenges. As Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia noted at the establishment of the OAU in 1963, the idea behind the establishment of the OAU was to “create a single institution to which we will all belong, based on principles to which we all subscribe.” But despite independence in the 1950s and 1960s, the realization of African-driven solutions remains a long way from being fulfilled (Ani & Matambo 2011). The imposition of external policies coupled with the ineptitude of post-independent African leaders hinders progress in this regard. When the OAU decided to transform itself into AU in 2001, it mainly aimed at enhancing Africa’s capacity and coordination to realize African solutions in African states (Apuuli 2012; AU 2013). And, entered into force on 26th December 2003, the AU has adopted a protocol on the African Union’s Peace and Security Council (AUPSC). Among the key objectives of the AUPSC are to promote peace, security, and stability and create conditions conducive to sustainable development. With that regard, African solutions appear among the central tenets of the AU’s security culture (as contained in the 2000 Constitutive Act (CAAU).

Today, as much as Africa and its current problems are often rooted in the past, it finds itself squarely at the forefront of new security thinking. It has become a testbed for innovative approaches and strategies. So, when Africans drive AfSol to the fore than never before, it acknowledges the role African traditional practices and principles could play in addressing conflicts at the local and global levels. It shows that Africa has the capability and determination to solve its problems. It demonstrates that AU is a suitable space for dialogue on issues of value to Africa. It is also based on a growing consensus amongst analysts, policymakers, academics, and civil society representatives on the continent that continental integration is a remedy for African problems. Moreover, the political ideal of AfSol, as Solomon (2015; 21) puts it, is essentially an issue of self-determination” that “seeks to bestow Africa, as a matter of principle, the lead role or ownership in the endeavor to prevent, manage and resolve conflicts on the continent.” Here, it has to be reminded that AU is equipped with robust mandates for collaborative solutions to the challenges in the continent.

Besides, the AU provides a sort of legitimacy and support as the continent continues to work toward developing a full authority. While the role of external actors is indeed laudable, it appears crucial to acknowledge that there is a new realization in Africa that Africa is no longer anyone’s backyard. This assertion seems pertinent, especially regarding the misgivings over external intervention’s reliability, efficiency, and motive. As insisted by Alpha Oumar Konaré (2007), “the primary responsibility for ensuring peace in Africa belongs to Africans themselves; they must shoulder that responsibility.” It reiterates that African partners must let Africans run their businesses. It is also an urge for the continent to shoulder its responsibility and demonstrate inter-African solidarity.

Therefore, Ethiopia’s insistence on African solutions to African problems is based on recognition of those endeavors. Africa has to rely increasingly on its own to provide long-term solutions to its problems within the framework of its sub-regional groupings and the African Union. Speaking of regionalism implies cooperation among states in geographically proximate and delimited areas to pursue mutual gain in one or more issue areas (Akokpari 2008). In line with that, an AfSol assumes a degree of regional awareness and collective identity to the extent that African states perceive themselves to be members of an ‘African’ international society based on a degree of shared historical experiences and cultural ties. And at the heart of this notion was the ideology of African nationalism and even perhaps Pan-Africanism. Thus, AfSol can be considered a political idea and a geographical pact. Therefore, what has been embedded with Ethiopia’s persistent stance on AfSol is these core values of African nationalism and even perhaps Pan-Africanism. The Nile and the GERD, in this context, are African issues that require African solutions.

It would be only plausible to put those unresolved issues of the GERD would be solved in line with the spirit of African Solutions to African Problems. As George Ayittey (1994) advocates it, when Africans formulate their solutions to their problems, they would have every reason and incentive to see their work. External or foreign solutions were not viable in Africa since they were either “imported” or “dictated” to Africans. Hence, those attempts by Egypt and Sudan to bypass African conciliation mechanisms on the Nile and GERD matter are a direct disregard of these values. It attempts to break the self-reliant African spirit that Ethiopia is trying to keep intact through successive generations. Such actions would also play down the African judgment as insufficient and ineffective in African issues. In other words, it could signal the crippling of Africa’s inherent conflict resolution mechanisms. Therefore, Africans cannot own those solutions.

In addition, it is essential to realize Ethiopia’s stance on AfSol as a call for a constructive approach to regional security issues. Hence, it can be considered as a call for consultation rather than confrontation, transparency rather than secrecy, and interdependence rather than unilateralism. These appear essential because the regional cooperative security process will allow states to change their behavior from competition to cooperation with those states. Poverty alleviation, a significant concern for all Nile Basin countries, could form the basis of a cooperative arrangement between all the Nile’s riparians when they come under regional agreements like the Nile-Basin Initiatives. In line with that, it is essential to note that GERD offers a unique opportunity for transboundary cooperation between the three countries and AfSol as a vital medium to offer a win-win solution to the problem between the three countries.

On the contrary, any attempt to shift the negotiation from AU leadership would undermine the unique opportunity for cooperation. It appears so because foreign alternatives are hardly feasible in Africa since they usually impose on Africans. It adds little to further complicate the chance of reaching an agreement shortly. African history also tells us that external involvement has resulted in more harm than benefit for African people (Solomon 2015). Furthermore, any such shift from the AU-led negotiation would signal to offer the green light for outsiders to intervene in the domestic matters of Africans and appreciate subsequent belligerent interference in the future. It’s not near that AU’s capabilities to resolve the dispute have been exhausted. With all these considerations, the African solution, as insisted by Ethiopia, sound more legitimate to solve disputes arising from the use and utilization of the GERD.

Finally, it is also a moral responsibility from the Ethiopian perspective to push for AfSol as a solution to the Nile and the GERD, given its historical legacy of African nationalism and Pan-Africanism. As an icon and one of the pioneers of pan-Africanism as well as a seat to the AU, it is only appropriate for Ethiopia to pin the axiom, which is a source of pride for the continent as well as a means of demonstrating Africa’s independent conflict resolution mechanisms in which partners play a supportive role. If AU has to be the principal voice for Africans, no one could be better placed than Ethiopia to assert the same. More than that, however, it is a firm belief that Africans possess the requisite tradition, skills, and expertise to overcome the continent’s multifaceted challenges. It is a strong gesture that African people and their leaders can solve their difficulties with their remedies.

In general, Ethiopia’s unwavering determination to solve the Nile and GERD dispute through AfSol sends a message to the world that it is time for Africans to take things into their own hands and use their resources to solve Africa’s troubles.

In general, Ethiopia’s unwavering determination to solve the Nile and GERD dispute through AfSol sends a message to the world that it is time for Africans to take things into their own hands and use their resources to solve Africa’s troubles. Egypt’s and Sudan’s move to stonewall regional arrangements and pursue other approaches is, thus, ill-advised, all of which have so far proved fruitless. Egypt and Sudan must understand that the Nile River is a regional watercourse, and its management must be approached from a regional perspective.


Conflict over the use of the waters of the Nile River has existed over the centuries. Successive Egyptian governments have successfully made water projects over the Nile futile by threatening military action, destabilizing Ethiopia, and dissuading external financial assistance to Ethiopia and the other riparian states. Egypt had also used its extensive diplomatic connections and the colonial-era agreements to successfully prevent the construction of any major infrastructure projects on the tributaries of the Nile for decades. They have thereby weakened Ethiopia’s internal capacity to construct the dam and made those previous attempts by successive Ethiopian regimes ineffectual.

Consequently, Ethiopia has not effectively used the river’s waters until 2011. When the Ethiopian government decided to construct GERD in 2011, it mobilized domestic resources to finance the dam fully. Therefore, it is not surprising that Ethiopia’s decision to build GERD is a source of controversy, particularly in Egypt. While the three countries (Egypt and Sudan on the one side and Ethiopia on the other side) are now in a standoff over the dispute on GERD, this article has shed light on issues of existence-ness, statuses of colonial agreements as well as AU as the proper forum of negotiation for the matter at hand. In that regard, the article has made it explicit that Ethiopia’s use of the river Nile is an existential issue for millions of Ethiopians living in abject poverty and darkness. One of the critical constraints on the fast-economic growth of Ethiopia and other riparian countries is an extreme shortage of power, with more than 60 million people having no access to electricity, which threatens the sustainability of their economic growth. Due to this and other reasons which the article made explicitly, Ethiopia’s use of its water resources shall be taken as an issue of existence.

The article has also capitalized on the refutability of colonial-era agreements concerning the matter. Over the years, Egypt, in particular, has persistently argued that the 1902, 1929, and 1959 colonial agreements are the binding legal frameworks for using the river Nile. However, such continued references by Egypt to so-called natural and historical rights are devoid of any international or customary legal backing. Hence, the article clarified the grounds for the non-applicability of the 1902 treaty (non-ratification by Ethiopia, variation of interpretation between the Amharic and English versions of the treaty, which does not preclude Ethiopia from using the Nile). It also assessed its invalidity based on an unequal treaty principle, non-applicability of state succession principle for the treaty, and Ethiopia’s termination of it due to significant changes in Ethiopia’s economic, social, political, and legal circumstances.

Similarly, the article also implicated the 1929 and 1959 treaties as un-governing treaties to Ethiopia because Ethiopia was never a party to the agreements. It is a well-known customary international law that treaties cannot create obligations on third parties unless the latter accepts such obligations. Ethiopia was not invited at the time. Neither had it accepted the obligation. So, these treaties cannot impose an obligation to the non-signatory state to the treaty.

The article has also stressed the importance of relying on the African Union-led trilateral negotiation as a viable solution to the dispute despite Egypt and Sudan’s insistence on the involvement of outside actors over the GERD negotiation. AfSol as the proper principle of negotiation for the GERD dispute has been vindicated on multiple grounds, including issues of providing legitimacy to the solution, constructive approach to regional issues, firm belief in Africans’ possession of the required skill, expertise, and tradition to solve African Problem as well as issue of moral responsibility from Ethiopia as an icon and pioneer of Pan-Africanism and also a seat to the AU.


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(1) The principle states that sovereignty over shared water is relative and qualified. The co-riparians have reciprocal rights and duties in the utilization of the waters of their international watercourse and each is entitled to an equitable share of its benefits. This theory is also known as theory of sovereign equality and territorial integrity.
(2) UN Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses. Adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 21 May 1997, entered into force on 17 August 2014, Articles, 5,7,8 & 9.
(3) The lower riparian of an international river has the right to a full flow of water of natural quality and interference with the natural flow by the upstream state require the consent of the downstream riparian. Therefore, the lower riparian has the right to claim the continued and uninterrupted flow of water from the territory of the upper riparian, ‘no matter what the priority’
(5) Article III
(6)Although the Vienna convention does not apply retrospective, it has codified customary practices.
(7)The clean-slate rule was applicable under customary law for former colonies
(8) See Art. 62, para. 2(a) Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties
(9)UN charter art 2(7) & art 24(2)
(10) UN Charter art 51
(11) In that regard, for instance, upon independence, Britain’s former East African colonies rejected the validity of the Nile Water Treaties, arguing that they were not party to them because they had no role in the formation and conclusion of those treaties. In fact, all the upstream riparian states have since argued in favor of a new, more inclusive legal framework for governing the Nile River Basin. No wonder, therefore, Egypt and Sudan shy away from Africa-led negotiations. Furthermore, the impasse on the Cooperative Frame Work Agreement (CFA) on the Nile Basin Initiative which persisted due to the major differences as a result of the resurfacing and hardening of the respective positions of the upper Nile riparian’s over the colonial treaties, as well as the Egyptian and Sudanese claims to what they see as their acquired uses and rights of the Nile waters, is also another demonstration to Egypt’s and Sudan’s low faith on any regional arrangements. For further reference, see Mwangi S. Kimenyi and John Mukum Mbaku, 2015, The limits of the new “Nile Agreement”. Brookings, Africa in Focus. Available at:

(12) On 15 June 2021, after its meeting held in Doha, Qatar, the Arab League has passed a resolution calling on the United Nations Security Council to take “necessary measures” to launch an “active negotiating process” in a dispute between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over GERD. Ethiopia rejects the “Resolution” in its entirety. For a further reference on same see Aljazeera, 15 June 2021, Arab states call for UNSC intervention over Ethiopian dam dispute. Available at:


The Belt and Road Initiative: Is China-Africa Cooperation a Neocolonial "Trojan Horse"?

In PublicationsDecember 31, 20228 Minutes

The Belt and Road Initiative: Is China-Africa Cooperation a Neocolonial "Trojan Horse"?

Berhan Tsedey

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) launched by China in 2013 as a new development strategy has provided fresh opportunities for China to reach out to the world. In the past nine years, the BRI has evolved from an initiative covering only roads and maritime corridors in Asia and Europe into a broader program connecting almost all of Asia, Africa, and Europe with numerous projects in those regions. In response to China’s increasing influence in Africa and its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, there have been significant discussions on whether this is too much of a good thing or if it presents some benefits. While some see Chinese investment as an opportunity for the improvement of infrastructure on the continent others consider it as nothing more than a Trojan Horse designed to make sure that China will be able to control access to African resources.

The BRI and Africa: Is China investing too much?

One of the most common arguments against the BRI in Africa is that Chinese investment is too much. Already, Chinese investment in Africa is estimated to be on average twice that made by the U.S. annually. But the concern is that with the BRI China will outstrip investments to the extent that Africa will become overly dependent on Chinese investment. While the BRI may bring some problems for Africa, the argument that these are too many investments is somewhat misleading. The BRI and subsequent investment from China is not a one-way street.

Is the BRI a tool for China to control African resources?

Some have argued that the BRI is a tool to control African resources, especially minerals. This is a view that has been particularly prevalent in the past because of China’s historical focus on commodities in its investment in Africa. Others have also argued that China’s control of the Suez Canal, with its ownership of the Port of the Canal, will give it control of the flow of commodities between India and Africa. However, despite these concerns, the BRI is not a tool for China to control African resources; indeed, Chinese investment in Africa is to a large extent motivated by need rather than greed. China’s increasing demand for commodities like copper, which it needs for its ever-growing economy, is met with an ever-decreasing supply, necessitating investment in new sources.

What is China actually investing in Africa?

Another common argument against the BRI in Africa is that China is investing in low-return projects. Others have also argued that Chinese investment is likely to be so significant that it will displace African investment. However, it is important to remember that the BRI is not one coherent entity, but a massive movement of investment from China to all parts of the world. Within Africa, Chinese investment covers all kinds of projects, from airports and railways to solar power plants and hospitals. The BRI does not have a pre-set agenda for what China should invest in, but is a product of the needs of each country, with the level of investment depending on how much the host country can provide as an incentive.

Opportunities for Africans through the BRI

The BRI, as a scheme that connects China with the rest of the world, also brings opportunities for Africans. The BRI offers African countries a chance to use their comparative advantage to access the Chinese market. The friendly economic and trade exchanges between China and Africa have supported the development of African countries through investment. One of the good sides of Africa-China relations is defined by mutual interest boosting economic and trade cooperation, unlike the Africa-West relationship which was defined by superiority complexes and various imbalances.

African countries are also keenly aware that completely copying the Western development model and being divorced from their national conditions is not only useless to Africa’s development, but may even hinder their development. In a sense, the development of African countries can only choose their development path according to their national conditions. Chinese modernization road respects national conditions, emphasizes a diversified development path, and does not interfere with other countries’ internal affairs. Above all, the Chinese model pays attention to mutually beneficial cooperation, welcomed by the masses of developing countries.

The Belt and Road initiative once again tells the world that China does not pursue hegemony. Its goal is to build a “community of shared future” with neighboring countries and a China-Africa community of shared future so that China and African countries share development and people-to-people connectivity and interests are integrated. In the past, China-Africa friendship and cooperation were mainly provided with more assistance at the national level. What the new era requires is a market mechanism of cooperation, exchange, common development, and mutual benefit. Driven by the new model of China-Africa cooperation under the Belt and Road initiative, the situation in Africa has been stable in recent years, and the investment environment and business environment have gradually improved.

The BRI is a massive development strategy that aims to link Asia, Europe, Africa, and Oceania. It is a broad initiative that will bring billions of dollars of investment to the world and will have significant impacts on all of the countries that are connected through it Now, China-Africa cooperation has entered a new era. In the past, China-Africa friendship and cooperation were mainly provided with more assistance at the national level. What the new era requires is a market mechanism of cooperation, exchange, common development, and mutual benefit. Driven by the new model of China-Africa cooperation under the Belt and Road initiative, the situation in Africa has been stable in recent years, and the investment environment and business environment have gradually improved. China-Africa cooperation has mutual needs and advantages. The initiative will have an impact on the world for decades to come.


GERD: Beyond drops of Water

In PublicationsDecember 31, 202232 Minutes

GERD: Beyond drops of Water

Yared Tesfaye


Ph.D. Candidate

Yared obtained his B.A. degree in Political Science and International Relations from Addis Ababa University. He earned his M.A. in International Relations from the same university. Specialized in Media and Communications, Yared worked as a Journalist, Communications Advisor with a number of private, government, and non-government institutions . Currently, he is working as a Political Advisor and Researcher at the Embassy of Japan, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.


Ethiopia and Egypt belong to the Nile Basin Region that in total connects 11 riparian countries (in addition to Egypt and Ethiopia), namely Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Eritrea. This piece discusses the prospects of Cooperation or Conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia through the prism of the broader geopolitics of the Nile Basin region, North-Eastern Africa, and the respective national security interests of these two major riparian countries.

The Nile is one of the longest international river systems in the world, with a length of 6670 km (Koutsoyiannis et al. 2008) while the Nile Basin covers an area of about 3.2 million km2, which represents some 10 percent of the African continent and hosts nearly 20 percent of the African population. (1). For the Nile basin, about 86 to 95 percent of the flow of water to the Aswan dam comes from Ethiopia. While the annual maximum precipitation is 2,098 mm per year in Ethiopia, there is almost no rainfall in Egypt that feeds into the Nile. The Ethiopian highlands are also a source of fertile soil sedimentation for irrigation and brick production in Egypt and Sudan (2).

Nevertheless, there is a geopolitical paradox among the Nile states. That is while being the source of 86 percent of the Nile water; Ethiopia has never claimed a monopoly over this water, and at the same time has utilized very little of this resource (Yacob, 2012). From Egypt’s side, on the contrary, in the history of the Nile basin, there has been a huge effort toward creating hegemony. Based on the colonial era agreements and post-colonial period agreements signed between Egypt and Sudan, in 1929 and 1959, Egypt claimed its right to an annual quota of 55.5 billion cubic meters of Nile waters (Kimenyi and Mbaku, 2015). The 1959 agreement afforded no water to Ethiopia or other upstream riparian states—the sources of most of the water that flows into the Nile. Perhaps even more consequential is that this agreement granted Egypt veto power over future Nile River projects (Mbaku, 2020). This quest for hegemony has played a very negative role that has become relevant today (Yacob, 2012).

Although Egypt has persistently argued that the 1959 agreement between Egypt and Sudan is the legal framework for the allocation of the waters of the Nile, Ethiopia, and other upstream riparian states reject this line of argument. This kind of reaction is reflected among the majority of upstream countries, and Ethiopia is always the first to do so. Despite the strong reactions from Ethiopia and other states, Egypt has been trying to establish a norm on the basis of immaterial agreements or treaties (Abadir, 2012). Such a rivalry that steamed from the contentious relationship over the Nile River has been one of the most impediments to peace and stability in the Horn of Africa region, particularly for Ethiopia. Tadele (2020) argued that more than any other factor, crucial geopolitical and geo-economic developments have caused, accelerated, or triggered tensions in the Nile Basin.
Ethiopia, whose highlands supply more than 85 percent of the water that flows into the Nile River, has long argued that it has the right to utilize its natural resources to address widespread poverty and improve the living standards of its people. Over the years, Egypt has used its extensive diplomatic connections and colonial-era agreements to successfully prevent the construction of any major infrastructure projects on the tributaries of the Nile (Mbaku, 2020).

Until not the last two decades the Nile water controlling tactics employed by Egypt proved successful. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Egypt was the key player in supporting the antagonist state, rebel groups, and other militants’ against Ethiopia and other upstream countries (Carles, 2006) to hold back the riparian countries from developing and utilizing the Nile water.
Warnerb and Zeitouna (2006) wrote that the Hydro-Hegemon is a concept that best explains the approach Egypt attempted to employ with a view to asserting its dominance in the Nile basin region. According to this framework, Hydro-Hegemon uses four water resource control tactics. These include coercion, utilitarianism, norms, and ideology (Warnerb and Zeitouna, 2006).

According to Cascao (2008), an active and persistent move against the status quo will lead the counter-hegemony force to the formation of a new regime which will consider an emergent or new hegemony. Resisting the status quo, the counter-hegemony, or the emergent hegemon will have three options, either to adopt a negative hegemony, stay neutral or promote a positive hegemony. In this regard, one can contend that Egypt and Ethiopia have been playing the role of the old hegemon and the emerging hegemon, respectively, in the Nile Basin region.


Broadly speaking, not only Ethiopia, but the other Nile riparian countries were all determined to object to Egypt’s age-old hegemony on the Nile waters.

However, the aforementioned explanation put Ethiopia as a country playing an active role in countering Egypt’s grand strategy of maintaining its dominance over Nile issues and persistently working for the equitable entitlement of this natural resource through the establishment of a permanent Basin-wide Cooperation Framework such as the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), which was a framework prepared by the Nile Basin Initiative members countries in 2010. As a multilateral attempt of dealing with the Nile issue, the CFA is a legal and institutional framework that facilitates a positive hegemony leadership (Alan, 2003) which is based on the principles of equitable and fair distribution of Nile water inviting all member states to take part in a win-win approach.

As Shapland (1997) argued the positive hegemony tactic has the power to bring the declining hegemony to the negotiation table and then to cooperation. However, Egypt and Sudan have been reluctant to change their claim based on historical and natural rights over the Nile waters and alter their bilateral agreement allowing full utilization of the Nile waters. While upstream countries want cooperation based on a new opening, both Egypt and Sudan would like more cooperation, but on the basis of the status quo (Yacob, 2012).

The GERD: An end of the old era?

Although conflict over the allocation of the waters of the Nile River has existed for many years, the dispute, especially that between Egypt and Ethiopia, significantly escalated when Ethiopia commenced construction of the dam on the Blue Nile in March 2011 exposing a fault line in the diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and Egypt (Mbaku, 2020).

Ethiopia asserts that the GERD will not harm Egypt. Egypt disagrees. Ethiopia avers that it is only claiming its right to utilize one of its resources for national development under international law of equitable use of transboundary water bodies. Egypt claims its rights under international agreements. Egypt, which depends almost entirely on the Nile waters for household and commercial uses, sees the dam as a major threat to its water security. When completed, the 4.8 billion USD Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) will become Africa’s largest source of hydroelectric power, with the potential to generate 6450 MW. Despite the obvious benefits of providing electricity for Ethiopia, its construction has exposed fault lines in the rising power’s diplomatic relations with regional rival Egypt (Cole,2018).

Ethiopia’s unilateral decision to construct the GERD symbolizes the first serious move to undermine Egypt’s hegemony over the Nile, and further indicates the shifting balance of power and has emerged as the catalyst for either conflict or cooperation between the two countries. The GERD has become a new reality challenging the traditional dynamics in the Nile River Basin (Attia and Saleh, 2021).

Egypt, fearing major disruptions to its access to the Nile’s waters, originally intended to prevent even the start of the GERD’s construction. Indeed, Egypt called the construction of the dam an existential threat, as it fears the dam will negatively impact the country’s water supplies. Egypt as it considered the launching of the project as a violation of the 1929 treaty, immediately requested Ethiopia to halt the construction until it provided a detailed study on the impacts of the dam on the downstream countries (ElBarbary, 2021).

Egypt’s Approach: New wine into an old wineskin?

Events on the ground attest that the conflict-oriented old approach is giving way to a new model of cooperation– centered on a fair and equitable sharing of the Nile waters with other riparian countries. This fact forces Egypt to alter its stubborn, win-lose approach and capitalize on cooperation as a reliable guarantee of ensuring water security, which had been at the core of its hostile policy towards the other riparian countries, particularly Ethiopia.

According to Mehereteab (2018) in addition to the emergence of the new hydro hegemony, other additional factors force Egypt to drop its “Win-Loss” approach to come to the negotiation table for a Win-Win approach, which could only be achieved through cooperation. Mihereteab argues that this is high time for Egypt to alter its policy on the Nile River and come to the table for equitable and fair distribution of water resources. Ethiopia and the other upstream countries are moving in the direction of the Dublin Principles which are framed on the principle of equitable and fair share. In the near future or long run, Egypt is expected to join the other Nile Basin countries that are fully supporting the EGRD and other Mega Projects on the Nile River ( Mihereteab,2018).

As the biblical parable says “No one puts new wine into old wineskins, otherwise the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost and the skins as well; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins (Mark 2:22) (2). Similarly, the new developments, realities, and claims around the Nile waters call for cooperation along a new approach that accommodates and harmonizes the legitimate demands of the riparian countries for a fair share of this natural resource. Otherwise, any attempt to employ a non-cooperative approach that ignores the empirical developments on the ground would yield a negative consequence. Through such an approach there is no guarantee whether the outcome will even be a Win-Lose one, rather it could most likely be a Lose-Lose.

One major illustration that Egypt is slowly drifting from its old stubborn claims of the natural and historic rights on the Nile waters ( based on the old 1929 and 1959 agreements) is, as the GERD is nearing completion, Egypt is trying to secure a political agreement over the timetable for filling the GERD’s reservoir and how the GERD will be managed, particularly during droughts (Mbaku, 2020).

Cooperation: the sole, viable option

While Egypt attempted to obstruct the GERD’s construction by blocking funding and threatening military action, it was unsuccessful. The unity of the upstream countries concerning a more equitable Nile River management and utilization, as displayed through the NBI and the CFA, further indicates that Egypt’s influence is weakening. Combined with the Declaration of Principles (DoP),(3) the commissioning of impact studies, and the decline in hostile threats, increased interactions between the two countries since 2013 imply that Egypt will not attempt to prolong its inevitable decline (Kazickas, 2016).

Ethiopia’s rise is not being countered by Egyptian aggression but instead by the understanding that the costs of cooperation outweigh the benefits of conflict. National self-interest is contributing to the development of a more cooperative and inclusive framework that may become the platform upon which a regional society can emerge.

The current situation in the region and the reality on the ground shows that Egypt and Sudan can no more stick to the old approach, but accommodate the new paradigm, that promotes an equitable and fair share of resources based on a win-win principle. A case in point is the steady progress of the GERD, regardless of the all-out attempt by Egypt to see the project buckled. According to official data released in February 2022, the construction of the GERD exceeded 84 percent, and the dam already entered into a trial phase and began generating 357 MW of power (4).

A pragmatic evidence of the non-reversible position Ethiopia is promoting on its GERD project is that while negotiations with Sudan and Egypt remain at an impasse, Ethiopia continued with the project firm and undisrupted and is warming up for the third round of the filling of the dam this main rainy season.

Such an empirical development on the ground is not only evidence that the old-fashioned win-lose approach is no more functioning but also forces Egypt to respond in a pragmatic manner realizing that it is left with a single option, that is cooperation. This change requires a reorientation of the old approach of Egypt, which is based on the Win-Loss principle.

With the coming into the stage of contending, rational, and legally sound claims on the Nile waters, the only viable option at Egypt’s disposal would be to sincerely adhere to a mutually beneficial and cooperation-oriented approach so that all the parties would come out winners.

Trust and confidence at the heart of cooperation

While Egypt was calling the halt the GERD project, the Ethiopian government plainly outlined that the GERD project will be beneficial not only for Ethiopia but in many respects also for the downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan. First, the flow of Nile water will be regulated from season to season because of the dam holding water, and hazards from flooding will decrease, especially in Sudan. Second, clean and cheap energy will be supplied from it and be made available to the region -given that the planned strength of the plant is 6000 MW (Mbaku, 2020).

Besides, Ethiopia’s move to invite Egypt and Sudan to form an International panel of Experts (IPoE) tasked to review the design documents of the GERD, provide transparent information sharing, and solicit understanding of the benefits and costs accrued to the three countries and impacts if any of the GERD on the two downstream countries to build trust and confidence among all parties (IPoE, 2013). Noticeably, this is a bold step that indicates Ethiopia’s readiness to boost confidence and promote cooperation with the two downstream countries.

Ethiopia’s initiation of the IPoE, the development of the TNC, and Ethiopia’s continued articulation of GERD’s benefits to downstream countries are representative of Ethiopia’s desire to assuage Egypt’s fears and work with the downstream country towards a mutually beneficial outcome (Kazickas, 2016). Similarly, The final report released by the IPoE in May 2013 sufficiently addressed the main concern of Egypt regarding the GERD, such as the reduction in the volume of water (water security), the safety of the dam, and the quality of the water.

Concerning the GERD, the IPoE report outlines the main concerns of Egypt All these concerns were sufficiently addressed by the IPoE’s report. For instance, on the safety of the dam, the IPOE said “the contractor building the dam is a world-class company that has “designed and constructed over 200 large dams around the globe” (IPoE, 2013)(5). This could be taken as one grand incentive by Egypt to cooperate with Ethiopia around the GERD, which has been scientifically confirmed to bring none other than a positive impact on the downstream countries. Since trust and confidence are at the heart of any cooperation, the steadfastness Ethiopia showed in the formation of the IPoE is a good capital and incentive for any future cooperation schemes with the downstream countries. Moreover, the initiative Ethiopia took is a reflection of its resolve to reclaim its right of utilizing its resource amicably addressing the concerns of the downstream countries, if there are any.


Nile countries must think of the Nile as a symbol of unity and a permanent bond, rather than a source of differences. We have observed changes in political systems and the creation of new states, but the fundamental role of the Nile has not changed (Yacob, 2012).

For centuries the Nile countries have been bound together by the Nile River and such a connection will only become more intimate in the future if these countries appreciate the reality on the ground and realize that water is a common resource whose effective management must be approached from a basin-wide perspective. Thus, it is only through cooperation that Egypt, Ethiopia, and the other riparian countries can effectively exploit and secure a guarantee for the security of this resource. On the flip side, no positive outcome can be obtained from mistrust, competition, suspicion, sabotage, and a continued reference to unworkable natural historical rights claims.

On the GERD

The GERD, which has become at the core of the Nile basin region’s geopolitical characterization could be a great opportunity for cooperation and development instead of escalated conflict and potential war between Egypt and Ethiopia if they manage to build confidence and agree on a cooperative framework that can benefit them without harming the others’ interests. For instance, Egypt must not use sympathy for its water vulnerability as a weapon to frustrate the efforts of the other riparians to secure an agreement that is balanced, fair, and equitable (Mbaku, 2020).

If Egyptian authorities refuse to abandon this anachronistic treaties-which have created untenable water-use rights that benefit only itself and Sudan- all parties will remain at an impasse. Furthermore, resolving conflicts involving the Nile River is most likely to be more successful through improvements in relations between the riparian and not through external intervention.

The GERD, which is a reflection of Ethiopia’s firm determination to exploit its natural resource, signifies a paradigmatic shift in the relationship among Nile riparian countries and attests that Egypt’s old way of dealing with the Nile water is no more. Thus, Egypt should be ready to redefine its old stance so that the GERD and any other future projects on this shared resource should become an integrative factor that provides opportunities for geopolitical interdependence in the region than being a menu for yet another round of conflict and competition. In, this era of continued negotiations, and engagement in hydro-diplomacy, the viable option is cooperation towards maximizing mutual benefits out of this shared resource (Yacob, 2016).

Moreover, there are ample options for cooperation and mutual development that conflict. the Nile Basin region will be the first region to encounter a growing gap between human needs and the available supply of water. This shows how the Nile Basin region needs to act in coordination to use this scarce resource wisely. It is also a stage where it demands integrated efforts and policy formulation and implementation in relation to unlimited population growth (Okbazghi, 2009).

The trajectory is more engagement, more interaction, more cooperation, and strategic prospect for future integration for mutual benefits and incremental integration beyond drops of water. The Nile basin countries should think beyond drops of water. It is not only the amount of water that the Nile basin countries need to discuss but the potential to maximize mutual benefit from each drop (Yacob, 2012, Yacob 2016).


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(1)Location of the Nile Basin in Africa, Nile Basin Initiative,

(2) Mark 2:22, “And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. Instead, new wine is poured into new wineskins.”
(3)Agreement on Declaration of Principles between The Arab Republic of Egypt, The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, And The Republic of Sudan On The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Project (GDP), Final Nile Agreement 5 March 2015 (2) (
(4) Construction of GERD Jumps over 84 Percent, Ethiopian News Agency, February 20, 2022,,other%20high%20level%20government%20officials
(5)International Panel of Experts (IPoE), Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Project (GDP), Final Report, Addis Ababa, May 31st, 2013,


Military bases in Djibouti present a growing geo strategic complication for the Horn

In PublicationsDecember 1, 20225 Minutes

Military bases in Djibouti present a growing geo strategic complication for the Horn

Staff Writer

Djibouti, the most strategic place connecting the indo pacific to the red sea and the greater eastern African region, has attracted a global competition by powerful countries to set up military bases in the country in the last 20 years.

What was once an obscure port overlooking the Gulf of Aden now hosts 8 military bases that belong to the US, China, UK, Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Saudi Arabia. The bases are lined up in a short distance across the nation’s red sea coast; making the country a powder keg where innocent mistakes could lead to grave miscalculations.

The continued expansion of the bases and the influence of the powers that manage these facilities is increasingly commandeering Djibouti’s internal capacity and independence to handle its strategic interests.

The importance of military buildup in Djibouti is a legacy of post 9/11 where the US established a marine expeditionary outpost to fight terrorism in the Middle East and effectively engage in Somalia against Islamic extremists. Ever since, a constant interest from global actors near and afar has saddled Djibouti with debt and political entanglements led by Gulf countries, the US and China.

In an indication of more players joining the tight ring, Russia and India are showing interest in building their bases in Djibouti. The Djiboutian leadership however does not seem ready to entertain the request, as it grapples with the possibility of reduced ability to decide on its sovereign affairs following Chinese American tussle over its loans and economic decisions. The operations of Doraleh port, built by china under its enhanced partnership with Djibouti, has drawn serious concerns from US military and government over its potential to place critical infrastructure under Chinese ownership in Djibouti.


The military bases are not just a geo strategic complication for Djibouti. The global powers are using the basing rights and resources to meddle in the delicate political and security landscapes of the Horn of African countries from Ethiopia to Uganda, Somaliland to Eritrea and South Sudan.

The Djiboutian leadership believed it was playing one power against the other when it pursued a silent basing diplomacy as part of its foreign policy; and it overestimated its capacity to prepare for outcome scenarios that compromise its decision making process.

With more finance invested in the country and military agreements providing them with expanded legal rights, the basing dynamics is simply too big for it to handle. In essence, it is now de facto outsourced a good portion of its sovereignty on its coast to a web of actors who are as busy keeping tabs on each other as they are engaged in overt and covert operations in and around the horn of Africa. There is a recent realization, however, among the political elite that a handful of powerful countries with their military hardware and special rights dotting the coastline may not be in the long term political and economic interest of the country.

As a country that depends on Djibouti for all its international trade, Ethiopia’s concerns over its lifeline logistics hub being potentially leveraged by a growing list of countries in Djibouti is increasing. With Ethiopia’s foreign trade expected to exponentially increase following its peace deal with the TPLF and an upcoming reset of relations with the West, difficult discussions between Addis and Djibouti on how to establish trust and consensus over long term geo strategic guarantees are on the horizon. The outcomes from those discussions will be substantive for the Horn, across the Atlantic and in the Indo-Pacific.